Why the ruck must go hands-free in 2021

The single biggest bete noire in the game of rugby as played today is the breakdown. If you look at the laws governing the tackle and what happens just after it, there are no fewer than 54 clauses and subclauses for the referee to keep in mind. His or her brain must be working at […]

Why the ruck must go hands-free in 2021

The single biggest bete noire in the game of rugby as played today is the breakdown.

If you look at the laws governing the tackle and what happens just after it, there are no fewer than 54 clauses and subclauses for the referee to keep in mind.

His or her brain must be working at the speed of light in the assessment of legalities and illegalities during a snapshot of action that lasts for seven seconds or less. They may then be asked to repeat the same complex process of evaluation as many as 250 times in one game.

In July 2020 World Rugby issued new guidelines based on the recommendations of its specialist breakdown working group. They were aimed at reducing the chance of injury which occurs when a defender ‘jackals’ for the ball on the ground with his hands.

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The jackalling process drops the defender’s head and neck well below hip height and makes it the first target area cleanout players see upon approach to the tackle area.

The difficulty of avoiding contact with head and neck was amply illustrated in the last game of the 2020 Tri Nations series in which one player from each side was yellow-carded for illegal contact to the head within the first half-hour of the match.

Chief among the laws World Rugby claimed it would reinforce were the following:

14. Tackle

Player responsibilities
5. Tacklers must:
a. Immediately release the ball and the ball-carrier after both players go to ground.
b. Immediately move away from the tackled player and from the ball or get up.

d. Allow the tackled player to release or play the ball.

15. Ruck

During a ruck
11. Once a ruck has formed, no player may handle the ball unless they were able to get their hands on the ball before the ruck formed and stay on their feet.

Another oft-neglected rule in the ruck section of the law book that is just as relevant is 15.3: “Players involved in all stages of the ruck must have their heads and shoulders no lower than their hips.”

The new directives have in practice resolved the breakdown in favour of the defence. At the highest level of the game, a good defensive team will typically force a turnover on the deck within 12 phases.

The elephant in the room is the jackal. As long as a tackler, assist tackler or the first arriving player is permitted to fold over the ball and try to win it with his hands, it will determine everything else which happens in what now apologetically passes for a ruck.

The jackal’s shoulders are always lower than his hips, and that dictates the body height of the cleanout. Immediate release by either ball carrier or tackler is just wishful thinking. More often than not people on both sides go to ground and the ball is trapped in a grappling match in the centre of the ruck.

One of the most influential games in terms of the application of the new refereeing guidelines occurred between Bristol Bears and Wasps in the semi-final of the English Premiership only ten weeks ago.

Under Pat Lam’s stewardship, the Bears have become one of the most adventurous sides in the league. They like to keep ball in hand, they like to use width, and they enjoy running out of their own end.

Against Wasps they kicked the ball 11 times to 26 by Wasps, they made 104 more passes and 58 more runs than their opponents and set 34 more rucks. The stats show more clean breaks, more defenders beaten and more offloads by Bristol. But Wasps won the game 47 points to 24.

Why? Wasps fielded three top-drawer jackals in the starting back five forwards in the shape of Joe Launchbury, Thomas Young and Jack Willis. Willis was the league leader in takeaways with 43, more than twice the number of the next best poacher.

The following are the raw stats of Bristol’s time in possession of the ball.

Total rucks Six-plus phases Ruck penalties awarded Breakdown turnovers
71 2 9 9

Bristol managed only two attacking sequences of more than six phases, and both of those ended in kicks. The balance of breakdown penalties was in favour of the defence (six to three), and Wasps turned the ball over via jackal once in every eight phases.

Let’s look at some typical snapshots which demonstrate why the July directives have failed. The referee is Matthew Carley, who is one of the best young officials in Europe:

This is Wasps’ second breakdown turnover of the game. The Bristol ball carrier is isolated as he runs the ball back from a kick, but there are already enough signals at the tackle to give the Wasps’ on-ballers encouragement that they will be in business:

The main issue is that the tackler (Wasps no.23) is never required to move away from the ball. That means the ball carrier cannot place it away from the two Wasps jackals (Launchbury and Young), and the Bears’ cleanout players cannot manoeuvre around him to make an effective impact.

Above all else, it is the body position of those two jackals that dictates the nature of the ‘ruck’ that ensues. They are bent double with shoulders well below hip height, so there is never a realistic prospect of arriving players staying on their feet in order to remove them. The danger of significant head or neck injury remains.

Matthew Carley only warned Wasps about hands in the ruck without penalising them.

Jack Willis goes in on the ball with his hands after the first attacking player has arrived, and that causes a four-second delay that is crucial for the next attacking phase.

In general Wasps defenders were not consistently required to release the ball carrier after a tackle had been made.

In neither instance does the tackler in the first example or the assist tackler in the second example ever release the ball carrier for long enough for a clear placement to be made.

This little acorn at the breakdown grew into a mighty oak for the Bristol attack as the game unfolded.

Wasps fullback Matteo Minozzi never releases the ball carrier during the tackle and he never allows him to definitely place the ball. Moreover, he is presenting his head and shoulders to a suitably enraged Bristol cleanout.

The ball spilled out of the back of the Bristol ruck and Wasps made a score out of their breakaway on the following play.

Something similar happened in the second half.

There is never any clear release of the ball carrier by the tackler (no.8 Brad Shields) who keeps his right hand in contact with the runner throughout.

The ball stays high in the ruck for too long and there is another crucial delay in release, which enables Wasps to wrap another forward around the ruck and set comfortably for the rush on the following phase. Their right wing, Zach Kibirige, ran away to score a cheap try after the Bears fumble.

The following short second-half sequence contains a number of elements which the law reinforcements strove to make impossible.

The tackler (Wasps no.5 Will Rowlands) never tries to roll away from the ball but gets up late and drives forward with what looks suspiciously like a trip on the halfback for good measure. That leaves easy pickings for Willis on the next play, with Young blocking the only cleanout path to the ball.

Let’s finish with a positive which brings all the negatives into sharper relief.

It is probably no coincidence that the man placing the ball is Steven Luatua, one of the most accurate presenters of the ball in the league. The placement is long and immediate and the aftermath provides a great snapshot of the direction the game must surely take in 2021.

The ball is already so deep in the ruck that the defender has to fall over in order to play it with his hands.

There has to be a new protocol in place in 2021. When the referee is satisfied a tackle has been completed, he should call “tackle”. At that point, all defenders in and around the ball must release and allow the ball-carrier to make an immediate, arm’s length presentation of the ball away from his or her body.

In the subsequent play, they may step across and pick the ball up if they have time, or stand above the ball to create a new offside line if they do not. That action will generate a counter-ruck as the cleanout support arrives.

In 2020 rugby was on its knees. The double blow of the worldwide COVID-19 crisis and a potential player lawsuit based on the impact of dementia after retirement have driven the sport close to the edge.

Rugby has to get back on its feet both literally and figuratively in 2021. At the heart of the law-making issue is the influence of the jackal at the breakdown. The jackal is the primary player around whom a ruck must currently be constructed, and as a result a modern ruck looks nothing like its forebears.

Jack Willis of Wasps at the ruck

Jack Willis of Wasps. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

A defender who is using his hands as the ruck forms means that cleanout players will have to dip below hip height in order to be effective at removing him. More often than not they will make contact with his head or neck in order to do so. As ex-Wales skipper Sam Warburton once said, “Sometimes I’ve struggled to shampoo my head, it was hurting so bad”.

Now is the time to bite the bullet and go further than the law reinforcements in mid-2020. Instead of dancing around the jackal it is time to confront him, to get him playing with his feet rather than his hands and his head.

It is no time to bend over but instead to stand up for what is right for the future of the game.

Source : The Roar More   

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Exeter: From rugby obscurity to kings of Europe

The West Country is one of the prettiest parts of England. Devon – with its rolling green hills, the beauty of Dartmoor and Exmoor, bucolic villages with delightful names like Beer, or the idiosyncratic Nadderwater – is a beautiful corner of England. Exeter – the county town of Devon – has ancient origins with Roman […]

Exeter: From rugby obscurity to kings of Europe

The West Country is one of the prettiest parts of England.

Devon – with its rolling green hills, the beauty of Dartmoor and Exmoor, bucolic villages with delightful names like Beer, or the idiosyncratic Nadderwater – is a beautiful corner of England.

Exeter – the county town of Devon – has ancient origins with Roman ruins, a Gothic cathedral and picturesque Tudor houses. It’s the birthplace of Harry Potter, with local streetscapes and pubs providing inspiration for Harry’s magical world in the hands of Exeter author JK Rowling.

For many years, the West Country counties of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall were relatively isolated. The M5 motorway, which winds its way south from Birmingham, was finished as late as 1977. Life is slower here than in the big smoke of London or even Bristol.

Yet for Exeter it has been a remarkable rise, from a little-known rugby team in sleepy coastal backwater to the greatest team in Europe.

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For the first ten years of competitive leagues in England (1988-1998), Exeter floundered in what was then the Courage Division 3, followed by a decade in National Division 1 (Division 2, now known as Green King IPA Championship) before finally gaining promotion to the Premiership (Division 1) for the 2010-11 season.

While teams are regularly promoted from the Championship to the Premiership, the top tier of English rugby has been largely unchanged throughout the era of professional rugby. A quick check of the Premiership table from 1998 sees all 12 clubs from that division present in the 2019-2020 competition.

Only Exeter and to a lesser extent Worcester have managed to storm the battlements to challenge the hegemony in elite English rugby. Promotion from lower leagues is largely unheard of, underlined by the fact that Exeter are only team to win the top four divisions of English rugby.

(Photo by Richard Heathcote – World Rugby via Getty Images)

Premiership success
Not only did Exeter manage to make it to the elite division of English rugby – the Premiership – they excelled, finishing as high as fifth place in their just their second season in the top flight. Exeter have not been missed a Premiership final since 2015 and have won the Premiership twice, in 2017 and 2020.

Much comment has been made elsewhere about Saracens’ salary cap breaches and subsequent demotion to the Championship, but Exeter’s ability to excel against that backdrop speaks volumes for team’s character and excellence.

In 2020, Exeter achieved a remarkable English Premiership and Heineken European Champions Cup double. It’s a marvellous triumph and so richly deserved.

What makes Exeter so special?
Why Exeter? Lots of teams win competitions after all. Exeter’s success can be boiled down to a culture of excellence and a sustainable approach to coaching that develops local talent and recruits wisely.

Remarkably Exeter have had the same coach, Rob Baxter, since their days in the English second division. That culture of excellence thrives in continuity.

Unlikely many glamour clubs, Exeter doesn’t have a rich benefactor in the mould of Saracens’ Nigel Wray or Jacky Lorenzetti, owner of flamboyant Paris club Racing 92. Club chairman Tony Rowe is a local businessman who runs the club as a CEO, rather than patron.

Club ownership is in the hands of around 700 members, overseen by four trustees. The community ownership model has similarities to the AFL team ownership philosophy.

Exeter hasn’t achieved success through the sort of cheque book-waving machinations that saw former Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal assemble a team of legionnaires in the early years of the last decade.

While Toulon may have won three consecutive Heineken Cups from 2013 to 2015, the model of buying a team of superstars by offering big salaries doesn’t make for a long-term, sustainable culture of excellence.

Rob Baxter
Much of the success achieved by Exeter can be credited to director of rugby Rob Baxter. Baxter is a local man, who played for Exeter for 16 years after joining the club in 1987, spending a decade as the club captain. Exeter rugby runs in Rob Baxter’s veins.

Rob Baxter is a coach who sets high standards. Exeter are exceptionally well drilled, with every component of the game – lineout, scrum, rolling maul, creative plays and game management – all honed to excellence on the training paddock.

His teams are extremely fit, and there are no prima donnas. No one is bigger than the team and each player gives his all. Rob Baxter values player loyalty: Ben Moon, Gareth Steenson, Jack Yeandle, Ian Whitten, Don Armand, Phil Dollman, Dave Ewers, Jack Nowell, Henry Slade and Luke Cowan Dickie all joined the club in the Championship or the early days of Exeter’s Premiership journey. That’s a remarkable record of player retention that few professional teams can match.

Then there is the development of local talent: Joe Simmonds, Sam Simmonds, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jonny Hill, Jack Maunder, Jack Nowell, Henry Slade and Sam Skinner all emerged through Exeter’s academy and developmental pathways.

Marquee players
Exeter has recruited wisely over the years, hiring players to fit the team rather than simply based on reputation.

Among them have been many Australians including Nic White, Dean Mumm, Mitch Lees, Ben White, Greg Holmes, Lachie Turner, David Dennis and Julian Salvi (now Exeter defence coach).

David Dennis. (Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

It’s apparent that much of the attraction has been due to Baxter’s character, coaching philosophy and the Exeter team camaraderie.

Recently Exeter has had a Scottish intake with Johnny Gray, Stuart Hogg and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne joining them. In rugged and abrasive South African Jacques Vermeulen, they have one of the best flankers in the Premiership.

Exeter’s rise might seem like a rags-to-riches story, but it has happened with carefully planning and a team culture built on loyalty, passion, excellence and enjoyment of the game. Few teams can match Exeter’s trajectory from the lower leagues in England 25 years ago to becoming the best side in Europe.

Exeter haven’t tried to buy success. Instead they have relied on their academy and developmental pathways. They have retained many players for eight years or more, realising that a loyal player understands the team culture and systems.

They then live in the community long term and are invested in the life of the club and the town. They become mentors for the younger emerging players. Exeter haven’t been arrogant when success and plaudits has come their way. Therefore, they have made many friends and found an army of admirers along their journey.

I’ll leave the final word to Robert Kitson author of Exe Men: The Extraordinary Rise of the Exeter Chiefs, who wrote in : “They are not bankrolled by billionaire overseas owners, still rely on homegrown West Country talent and sundry cast-offs and even have a director of rugby, Rob Baxter, who could, if asked, shear a sheep before kick-off.”

Source : The Roar More   

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